A/N: Thank you all for your patience with this story (and my others) and thank you so much for reading your reviews. Thank you to Trasan. Happy Valentine's Day everyone!
The soft light that preceded dawn lit the hospital walls, the clouds heavy with rain, a damp cold touched everything causing Dean to shiver in his coat and wrap his hands tighter around the cup of coffee he was holding. He'd slipped out of Sam's room long enough to get the beverage, and had ended up in the small hospital garden on the bench. He wasn't even sure why his steps led him there—he'd hardly even been aware that he wasn't on the way back to Sam's room. Sighing, he sipped the coffee and watched a bird hopping under the bushes.
Dean was planning on taking Sam home today, he didn't really care who protested. His brother seemed to be hanging on, but Dean knew that the stay in the hospital was taking away Sam's resolve to keep fighting. He was still in a lot of pain—which was to be expected, Alan said, and Dean understood. The injuries wouldn't magically heal. What was wearing a hole in Dean's heart was the fact that the infection was still there, still not responding in the hours since the diakka was killed. Sam was still sick, still... No, I won't even think it. He's getting better. A little flutter of panic brushed through Dean's chest, causing an ache that nothing could take away. Sam will get better. Sam will get better. He kept repeating it, had been repeating it, like a mantra, not knowing if it was for his brother or for himself he was holding onto that hope.
Sam had to get better, there was no other option. Dean wondered if Sam believed him when he said Sam's legs didn't matter. He could see how that might be hard—they led a physical life and Dean had insisted on training almost as much as their father had when Sam was in his teens. And Sam had excelled at it, even though he'd complained every second. Even before he'd grown into his feet, his brother had strength and confidence, Sam just hadn't wanted to do it.
Funny, their father—and Dean, if he was honest with himself—had always believed that the physical training was what mattered on the hunt, but Sam had just proven how wrong that belief actually had been. Sam was sick, in pain, unable to walk or use his left hand and he had solved it, just like that. He'd put two and two together in that freaky brain and had an answer, a viable answer, something Dean could deal with and fight. Huh. A realization hit Dean out of the blue. Sam had always done that. Dean remembered when Sam had said he'd come back from California and Dean had told him he could research too, and he could—but not like Sam. His brother had an uncanny knack for being able to put together the strangest, seemingly unrelated pieces of information into a solid answer—time after time.
Oh god. Something caught at the back of Dean's throat, tears burning in his eyes. Sam had solved it, just like always. Nothing was different. Oh god, oh god. Dean swallowed hard, willing himself to hang on. Whatever had been holding him together was cracking, the breaks getting larger. Sam found an answer, Sam did what he'd always done. Oh god. One of the things that had been slamming in his chest since it happened, fluttering against his heart, making it ache, was suddenly gone.
Sam was still Sam.
Dean's hands started shaking, he clenched his teeth together to try and hold it in. Sam was still Sam. He swallowed again, fighting the emotion pounding through his body. He'd been terrified since Sam woke that somehow he was different, somewhere in the back of Dean's head the repeated "brain damage" had sunk in, no matter what he said. Sam was still Sam. Oh god. Depressed, yes, angry, yes, hurt and injured beyond belief, yes. But still Sam. Dean tightened the grip he had on the coffee cup, trying to keep control, the cup crushed and coffee ran over his hand. He took a steadying breath, trying to stop shaking.
"Good morning," Alan said from behind him. Dean jumped, took a deep breath and stood, turning towards the doctor. He saw Alan's eyes flick to the crushed cup. "Are you okay?" Alan asked gently.
"Yeah," Dean answered, his voice harsh.
"Sam's awake, he wants to go home."
"Yeah." Dean couldn't seem to force more than the one word past the lump clogging his throat. He took a shaky breath, getting ready to defend Sam's choice.
"He should," Alan said, his voice tight.
"Dean, I'm sorry, I..." The doctor glanced away. "He should be home." Alan sighed and scrubbed a hand across his face. "It will be better for him. You were right about that, we're going to do a few more tests, do a blood draw and send you home."
"I'll be by later today and double check his meds—make sure you have enough."
"You think I'm taking him home to die, don't you?"
"He's going to get better," Dean growled.
"I'll get the tests ordered, you two can be on the road in an hour," Alan said, putting his hand on Dean's shoulder.
"He's going to get better," Dean repeated. Alan nodded and turned to go, a soft whoosh of air bringing a medicinal scent into the garden. Dean clamped down the emotion roiling through him. Sam was still Sam, he was going to... to make it. He had too. Dean tossed the cup into the small garbage can disguised to look like a planter and headed up to Sam's room.
The TV was on when he got there, he looked in. Ah, Sammy. His brother was staring at the ceiling and he could see the sparkle of tears on Sam's cheeks. Dean cleared his throat to let Sam know he was there before going in. "Alan said we can head out," he said as he approached the bed. Dropping a hand on Sam's arm, Dean smiled. "Which is a good thing, that freaking monster has probably eaten the bed or something." He forced a chuckle.
"Did you check on him?" Sam asked, a frown curling between his eyebrows.
"Nancy did, she said she even took him some chicken, which is all we need. It'll probably expect it now."
"Yeah, probably," Sam said with a small smile.
"Yeah." Dean gave his brother's arm a squeeze. "Ready to get dressed?"
"I guess." Sam shifted and Dean slid a hand behind him and lifted him to a sitting position. "Thanks, Dean."
"Yep." Dean pulled Sam's clothes out of the small closet, and gently helped his brother get dressed. By the time there were done, the nurse had brought the last of the paperwork so they could go. Dean helped Sam into the wheelchair, ignoring the pull across his ribs, more aware of his brother's fever than he had been on a long time. No, he's getting better. One of the nurses stopped them to give Sam a hug on the way down the corridor, smiling sadly at Dean as she turned to go. When they reached the door Rafe was waiting to get the keys from Dean and disappeared to pull the car up. Dean watched the Nissan move through the parking lot and sighed, quickly suppressing the sound.
"I miss her too," Sam said softly.
"Hey, don't offend the car, she thinks she's an Impala and I'm not telling her different." Dean chuckled and opened the door, carefully lifting his brother into the car and settling him on the seat before he swung Sam's legs in and closed the door.
"Too bad it's raining, it would have been nice to go by the lake."
Dean glanced at his brother, Sam was watching out the window, a wistful look on his face. There were deep lines of pain around Sam's mouth, he reached out to put his hand on Sam's shoulder, twisting just right—or wrong—to send a twinge of pain across his bruised ribs. Thankfully they were just bruised, it could have been much worse, Dean had been sure he'd felt a rib snap when the diakka had attacked.
"What's wrong?" Sam asked with a concerned frown.
"I'm okay," Dean replied automatically.
Sam huffed, his frown tightening. "You said the diakka didn't hurt you."
"Fine," Sam snapped, sounding so much like his old self that Dean couldn't stop a grin.
"Fine," Dean said. Sam was still Sam. That thought caused the band holding him together to break a little more. "What?" Dean asked after several minutes of silence. He could feel his brother's eyes on him and when he glanced over Sam was staring at him, a frown of concern on his face. "I'm fine."
"Sure," Sam said, not dropping his gaze.
Dean pulled into the coffee stand and ordered coffees, still aware of Sam's eyes focused on him. "Stop," he said, handing his brother a coffee.
"Whatever, I can hear you."
"I didn't say anything."
"Yeah, you did."
"No," Sam said, lifting his coffee cup with a badly shaking hand.
"No, I didn't."
"You were staring loud."
A smile spread across Sam's face. "You can't stare loud, Dean."
"Yeah you can, Sammy, and you stare loudest of all." Dean smiled back, remembering the first time they'd had the conversation.
"Nuh uh," Sam replied with a chuckle. "Hey, can we stop at the store?"
"The grocery store, Dean?"
"The grocery store?" Dean repeated, the lump in his throat growing a little more and the cracks in his control getting bigger. He took a slow breath, damping the emotion down as much as he could.
"Okay, I need to get something for dinner," he said with a falsely bright smile he knew Sam saw right through.
Sam was still Sam.
Oh god, I won't break in the store, please.
The rain had decreased to a drizzle by the time they got to the grocery store. Sam swallowed nervously as Dean pulled into the handicapped parking spot and popped the trunk. Except for the park and Nate's shop, he hadn't been out in public since it happened. Suddenly going into the store seemed a lot more difficult than when he'd asked to stop. Sam glanced over at his brother, Dean was getting out of the car, tension in his shoulders, his teeth clenched. On the drive to the store Sam had heard—actually heard—Dean grinding his teeth together. He knew his brother was holding on by a very thin thread, and Sam was sure Alan had told Dean that the antibiotics still weren't working. The doctor had broken the news to Sam that morning when he said Sam and Dean should go home. Home to die was implicit in Alan's comment.
Sam was worried about Dean and what would happen to him after... Sam sighed. Something had changed about the pain, the throb that was always there beating through his body, he wasn't sure what it was—the approaching end or something else. He wasn't going to tell Dean, at least not yet, he didn't want to offer hope when there might not be any after all. Dean was hanging on to the idea that Sam would get better, or at least the infection would be cured and that would be the first step to recovery. What would happen if it went the other way was one of Sam's greatest fears.
He knew Dean would follow him—oh maybe not pull out a gun and blow his brains out right there, but he was sure that Dean would find a way out, probably by jumping into a hunt he knew he wouldn't come back from. What Nate told Sam just confirmed that.
"Hey," Dean said, pulling the door open. "You ready?"
Sam looked at the building, fear clenching a tight knot in his chest. "Yeah."
Dean put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. "You sure, Sammy?"
"Yeah." Sam took a deep breath, pain was starting to creep along his spine, aching in his legs and arms, but he could do this. I can. For Dean. "Yeah, let's go." Dean smiled and lifted him on to his feet, a spasm of pain crossing his face as he lowered Sam into the wheelchair. Sam tried to suppress a huff of frustration. Dean was hurt, he could tell from the tight lines around his brother's mouth, and surprise, surprise, Dean was downplaying the injury.
Sam swallowed again, trying to still a shudder as the door got closer. Until this moment he hadn't realized that this would happen. He was terrified to go into the store, his breathing hitch and he watched several people leaving the building, not even sure why he was so wary of them. His hands started shaking as the door got closer, the fear making the pain so much worse. Tears burned in his eyes as despair washed over him. How could he think he was going to get better? He couldn't even do this, let alone walk or use his hand or deal with...
"Sam?" Dean's voice was soft. Sam opened his eyes, Dean was crouching down in front of the chair, his hand on Sam's leg. "What is it?"
"We don't have to do this."
"Dean... I..." Sam tried to breath through the growing panic. "How can you think I'll get better if I can't even do this?" It came out more desperate than Sam intended.
"Sam," Dean began, then frowned at something. "Go around," he snapped. Sam heard an exasperated sound from behind him, and a woman stepped around them. "What a bitch," Dean said, focusing back on Sam. "Listen to me. Going into a store isn't part of getting better."
"No, Dean, I..." The ever-present fear of being helpless was pounding through him in time with his heart, ramping the pain up even further.
"No, Sam, it's not. You are getting better, we'll beat this infection," Dean said, his voice fierce. "And everything after that is just icing."
"Just icing?" Sam asked bitterly.
"It's true, Sam. You just proved that, you found the diakka and how to kill it. We're..." Dean stopped and cleared his throat, his eyes bright. "We're still a team, Sam, and that's all that matters."
"We're still..." Sam began. Something in his chest snapped, he wasn't sure what it was, but the tears broke loose and he started trembling in spite of the heavy sweater he was wearing. Dean stood, pulled off his coat and tucked it around Sam. He was just getting ready to ask Dean if they could go back to the car when the scent of baking cinnamon rolls drifted out of the building. His stomach growled softly. "Let's go in," Sam said, taking a deep breath, the comforting smell of Dean's coat mingling with the cinnamon.
"You sure?" Dean asked.
"Yeah, we should take Fim something special because we've been gone."
"A bribe you mean?" Dean chuckled and slowly pushed the wheelchair towards the door, as they got close enough for it to whoosh open, Dean dropped a hand on Sam's shoulder. "The house is probably already destroyed. Ready?"
Sam nodded, his heart pounding. It was warm in the store, the soft lighting relaxing. The bakery was just inside the door to his right, and Dean headed straight towards it. The panic seemed to have reached a peak, at least it wasn't getting worse, and Sam managed a smile when Dean stopped in front of the large glass case of pastries.
"Hi, Dean, is that Sam?" the woman behind the counter asked, smiling at them.
"It is," Dean answered, his hand still on Sam's shoulder.
"I'm Denise, Sam, my sister Sarah works at the hospital." She beamed at Sam, then turned back to Dean. "What do you want today? We just started offering our pear hazelnut bread."
"What do you think, Sam?" Dean gave his shoulder a squeeze.
"Sure," Sam said, swallowing.
"Anything else?" she said as she put the loaf in a sack.
"Not right now, thanks, Denise."
"Okay." She slipped two cinnamon rolls in the bag and wrote the price for bread, but nothing else on it. "Sarah said you liked them, Sam." She winked at them and turned to help the couple standing at the other end of the counter.
Dean handed the bag to Sam and pushed him farther into the store. The panic was still there, but the place was nearly empty, and Sam felt a little of the tension in his back relaxing as they went up and down the aisles. At Sam's insistence, they stopped by the fish counter and got half a pound of cocktail shrimp for Fim, Dean muttering about freaking monsters the whole time. Dean ended up getting a shopping basket and putting it on Sam's lap as they moved through the store.
Something about it all felt so normal that the panic started dissipating, and Sam was actually enjoying himself as they picked out items for dinners. Dean was humming and Sam was sleepy by the time they got to the check out counter, and within seconds of Dean settling him in the car, Sam was asleep.
"Sam?" Dean was shaking him.
"Hmm?" And for a split second, he was in the Impala and they were pulling up at a seedy motel, and he was warm and comfortable, then the pain was back.
"Okay," Sam said, shifting in the seat so it would be easier to get out.
Dean brought the wheelchair around, and after helping Sam in carefully put the groceries on Sam's lap, muttering about saving a trip—Sam understood, Dean was worried about leaving him alone in the house, and even with their talk, Sam really couldn't blame him.
"Well, the building is still standing," Dean said as he pushed Sam towards the porch.
"Did you expect it to be gone?"
"You never know with that freaking monster." Dean opened the door cautiously and peered in. "It's quiet in there... Too quiet."
Sam chuckled as they went into the apartment. It was quiet, and there was no evidence of kitten destruction—at least not yet. "Where is he?" Sam asked, looking around the living room. A tiny squeak was his answer and a moment later Fim was leaping from the back of his chair onto Sam's shoulder. Before Dean could grab him, the kitten had slid down onto the grocery bags, frantically purring. Sam was petting him when Fim's ears twitched and he started pawing, then digging at the bag with the shrimp in it. Sam laughed.
Dean snatched the bags. "Oh, no, not yet you freaking monster." He set them on the kitchen table and turned to Sam. "You should rest."
"Can I take a shower first?"
His brother eyed him for a long moment before nodding. "Sure, let me go get everything ready. You keep and eye on the monster."
Dean headed back into the bedroom and Sam heard drawers opening. Fim poked at Sam's hand and he started petting him. The kitten flopped over on his back and Sam scratched his stomach, Fim's face a happy mask of kitten joy. Sam looked up when Dean came back into the room. "I blissed him out," Sam chuckled. "Eww, he's drooling."
"Your own fault."
Fim didn't move when Dean pushed the wheelchair into the bathroom. Sam gently shooed the kitten of his lap when Dean locked the wheels so he could help him into the shower. His brother helped him onto the shower stool, double checked the waterproof cabinet, reminded him twice to call if he needed anything and left. Sam sighed, Dean was in overprotective mode, more so than he had been, which worried Sam.
The warm water felt good and Sam let it run over him while he almost dozed, the stiff muscles in his back relaxing and the spasms decreasing. It was starting to cool when he turned it off and scooted the stool over to the cabinet. He had just managed to get his shirt on when he heard a noise outside the shower door. "Dean?"
"Yeah?" his brother answered immediately.
"What are you doing?"
"Um, washing my hands?"
"Have you been out there the whole time?"
"Yeah, that's what I thought."
"Sam..." Dean paused when his phone started ringing. "Alan? What is it?" Sam heard his brother's sharp intake of breath. "What?" Dean was breathing heavy, like he was in pain.
"But you said..." There was a pause and Sam heard his brother's hurried footsteps leaving the room.
"Dean?" Sam pushed the stool over to the shower door and opened it. Fim was sitting on the toilet looking confused. "Dean?" Sam called again, his brother didn't answer—and that's when Sam heard it. A soft sob. "Dean?" What happened? Another sob, muffled, like Dean had a hand over his mouth, Sam had seen it before, and Sam knew the thread Dean had been hanging on to had broken, he didn't know why, he just knew Dean needed him. "Dean?" he said, worry ramping up when there was still no answer. Dean always answered.
He looked at the wheelchair, sitting just outside the shower door it wasn't far, but there was no way, it might as well have been miles.
Another sob, desperate, pained.
He had to get out there. Had to, that simple.
Sam took a deep breath and grabbed the bar in the shower stall with his right hand, looping the fingers of his left over it as well for balance, since his left arm was still close to useless. Clenching his jaw against the pain he knew was coming, he took tightened his hold, and pressed up with his legs. Standing was easy right? He made it an inch off the stool before he dropped back down. No. He took another breath, closed his eyes and pushed up with ever ounce of strength he had, pulling up with his arm as well.
His knees were straightening and suddenly he was standing.
He didn't stop as a sense of triumph flowed through him, he shuffled a foot forward, leaning heavily on the bar. Oh god, it's so far. He slid his other foot forward, reached out and grabbed the bar on the outside of the shower and lifted his foot the two inches over the threshold on the shower. The other foot was easier, he just dragged it and took another small step, he was almost there.
Sam took another step, his knees starting to give way, pain exploding through his back. His arm was starting to give out as well. Fim made a chirping noise, almost like he was encouraging Sam. One more step, just one more and he was there.
He made it.
Sam unlocked the wheels and, using his feet, moved the chair out into the living room. Dean was sitting on the floor, leaning against the glass doors, his head in his hands. His entire body was shaking and the soft sobs were tearing out of him.
"Dean?" Sam said quietly.
His brother's head snapped up, his face wet with tears. "Sam?"
"Dean, what is it?" Sam asked. Dean didn't answer, a look on his face that Sam couldn't describe but he'd never forget. Grief, relief, pain, joy, everything was there. "Dean?"
"Sam..." His brother was shaking his head wordlessly.
"What's wrong?" Sam was desperate, he locked the wheels on the chair and started to get up, Dean was up the next second, pulling Sam against him in a tight hug.
"Oh god, Sammy." And Dean broke, he was holding Sam up, but resting his head against his shoulder at the same time, his entire body shaking as he cried. Sam found himself crying with Dean, not sure why.
"Dean?" Sam said softly when his brother's tears slowed.
"Alan called," Dean whispered, pulling away from him, so he could look at him.
"He said..." Dean paused, fresh tears glistening in his eyes. "The blood work they did this morning."
"What?" Sam frowned, confused.
"They're working, Sam, the infection, the drugs are working."
"What?" Sam's knees gave out, Dean caught him and gently carried him to the recliner.
"He said you'll still need to take them for awhile, he's bringing more by tonight."
"Yeah, Sammy," Dean said, a smile lighting his eyes, hope shining bright on his face.
And for the first time, despite the agony flowing through his back, despite the pain in his legs and arms, Sam felt the warm glow of hope as well.
To Be Continued